SALT LAKE CITY — Layton-based author Lesli Muir is hard at work preparing her 50th novel for publication. As the new year begins, she’s also midway through publishing a Scottish time travel romance series, “The Ghosts of Culloden Moor.” There’ll be 81 books total when the series is complete. Approximately half of those will be written under her pen name, L.L. Muir. She’s enlisted the help of other authors to write the rest.
With that scale of production, it might seem like Muir has the backing of a big-time book publisher in New York. But Muir doesn’t need a publishing house. She is the publishing house.
That’s the idea behind self-publishing — sometimes referred to as independent, or “indie,” publishing. Whereas traditionally published authors write their books and pass them on to a publishing house that polishes, packages and sells the book, all those responsibilities fall in the lap of the author.
And for Muir, that’s fine. She's independent both creatively and financially, and her earnings are in the six-figures. She considers herself a “mild success.”
“The writing part is the easy part,” she said. “We have to be publishers, we have to be editors. We have to find cover artists and have professional covers or we’re not taken seriously. It’s a four-hat job.”
Muir always wanted to write but spent 25 years as a florist and lacked the time to fully pursue her passion. Her life changed when someone introduced her to Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” books. She closed shop, which allowed her to care for her son with Down syndrome and write full-time.
“I decided I needed to get back to the original dream of writing,” she said. “I wrote my first novel in about three weeks.”
She found an agent in 2010 and hoped that would land her a deal with a New York publisher, but things didn’t work according to plan. Nearly two years later, she was ready to give up when she heard about self-publishing from a friend.
“She told me how much she had made the previous month because she started self-publishing,” Muir said. “It blew my mind. … Three weeks later, (I self-published) one of the … books my agent couldn’t sell. I started making money right away, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger.”
It wasn’t magic. She and others who got in early on self-publishing had to watch the market closely, staying ahead of the curve and jumping on trends that put their books in front of readers.
And even after all the hard work, many don’t see the same success that Muir has experienced — though that doesn’t stop them from trying.
The allure of self-publishing
For many writers, self-publishing is appealing because it allows them to maintain creative and financial control over their careers, according to John D. Brown, an author based in Laketown, Rich County.
Brown debuted the first book of his fantasy trilogy with Tor Books — the same publisher that backs bestsellers Brandon Sanderson and V.E. Schwab. But when it came to writing his second book, he and his editor didn’t see eye to eye.
“Thankfully we had a good working relationship,” Brown said. “I parted ways … and I took (those books) indie.”
Not only did becoming an independent author mean he had creative control, but based on his calculations, he figured he could make just as much money as he would have made with Tor. He proved his theory correct when he independently published his thriller novel “Bad Penny.”
“If I’m going to partner up with a publisher, what do I get and what do I give away?” Brown said. “Do I want to give up my ability to price (books), my ability to go to market as I want or to bring (books) out as fast as I can?”
Orem-based author Janci Patterson had a similar experience. Macmillan published her young adult novel “Chasing the Skip” but didn’t do much to promote the book. Consequently, the book didn’t sell well and Macmillan wasn’t interested in anything else she wrote.
“I decided I could either quit from discouragement or I could look into self-publishing and see if I could do it,” she said. “I packaged the book myself. I learned how to upload it and market it. It was really kind of fun.”
Techniques for success
Placing control in the hands of writers rather than corporate bigwigs makes the self-publishing industry something of an experimental publishing playground.
It’s among the self-published shelves where readers will find books that cater to their niche interests. Muir — with her clean Scottish time-travel romances — said the more specific the better in self-publishing. Writers are also experimenting with marketing techniques and release schedules, something traditional publishers typically control, in hopes of finding a formula for success.
A popular model is quickly blitzing the market with books, which has become easier thanks to the popularity of e-books. Rather than publishing a book every one or two years, it isn’t uncommon to see self-published authors publishing multiple books a year. Book series, in particular, work well.
Patterson and a friend have spent four years teaming up to write a string of books they plan to introduce to the market this year. Their plan? Publish 15 books in 16 months. It takes them six weeks to write a romance novel, three months to write a fantasy novel.
“We’ve written almost all the books that are coming out (this) year,” she said. “We’re coming out strong to gather the audience. … I’ve done a ton of research about (how to succeed) and this seems to be the model that works best for people.”
Brown has the same plan. He’s waiting until he completes the final book in his upcoming fantasy series before he publishes the first.
“I’m going to try to release them in quick order and do a lot of marketing and advertising,” he said. “That seems to work best with the Amazon algorithm to get the most visibility. When you have more visibility, you have more sales — it’s a virtuous cycle.”
Patterson added, “Putting out the next book is probably the single best marketing thing you can do.”
Self-publishing’s stigma is changing
But with all that control comes the risk of mediocrity. In its early days, self-publishing had a reputation for unprofessional covers, an abundance of grammatical errors, poor formatting and — worst of all — bad storytelling.
The stigma is fading, though that doesn’t mean authors don’t fall short.
“Doing indie books isn’t for everybody,” Brown said. “You’ve got to know what you’re getting yourself into.”
For writers who want to succeed, there are some things they can’t cut corners on. For one, the book has to be good. That might seem obvious, but many fail to give their books to beta readers who can give them feedback about the book’s strengths and weaknesses. A copy editor who can read for grammar is also nonnegotiable. And spending money on marketing — including the cost to produce a well-designed book cover — is important too.
“There’s a huge indie author graveyard,” Brown said. “There are a lot of people who try it and they just don’t get the advertising right or the cover right, or their stuff just isn’t up to snuff yet.”
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Taking the time and pulling the resources to produce something professional can make all the difference. When it comes down to it, readers want a good story — it doesn’t matter whose logo or name is on the spine.
“(People), in my experience, sometimes don’t even know if what they’re reading is self-published or not, unless it’s obvious by the quality,” Patterson said. “They’re just looking for good books.”
But don’t expect to get rich
But even if a writer has a strong story and an attractive cover, there are no guarantees. Those who make a living as self-publishers are the exception, not the rule.
In a 2017 shareholder letter from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, he stated that “over a thousand independent authors surpassed $100,000 in royalties” through Amazon’s e-publishing program, Kindle Direct Publishing. That may seem like a lot, until considering that more than a million books were self-published in 2017, according to a report from Publishers Weekly. A 2014 survey found that self-published authors make between $1-$999 a year.
“We highlight all these successes and we don’t let people know there’s a huge graveyard,” Brown said. “Not everybody finds success.”
The numbers aren’t only true of self-publishing either. Even with fancy covers and professional copy editors, many authors published with large publishing houses can see small paychecks (two percent of traditionally published authors see six figures).
No matter how you cut it, publishing isn’t a goldmine — even if a lucky handful strikes gold every now and again.
“With writing, it’s a long shot," Brown added. "No matter whether you’re going through traditional publishing or you're going indie. The graveyard is full of books that didn’t sell and it’s full of authors who, after trying for so many years, just decided it’s not worth it.”
While Brown’s seen significant sales, he still works his day job to support his family, which adds its own challenges to the mix. He juggles a side-business along with work and family priorities. And Patterson doesn’t work a day job, but she’s a stay-at-home mother and home-schools her children.
“Everything just kind of wraps around everything else,” she said. “I write in between moments.”
Of course, beyond the writing itself is the pre-writing. And the editing. And the marketing. From there, it’s fingers crossed — despite the odds — that the book will do well. With so many factors out of the author’s hands, the handful of things they can control become all the more important.
“I need to do the things that are going to make it more likely (for me to succeed),” Brown said. “It’s not a guarantee. The odds are still long. But there are some things that I can do to make my odds a little bit better.”
An evolving and optimistic industry
And yet there is a lot to be optimistic about. Amazon currently claims nearly 50 percent of book sales — that means more opportunities for self-published authors who publish on Kindle. According to a 2017 Authorearning.com report, indie authors accounted for 20-35 percent of e-book sales worldwide. And while the results will surely vary from author to author, the fact that there are new doors opening means success is much more possible.
Author and blogger Mike Thayer, who grew up in Provo, chose to jump all into the self-publishing game last year. He published his children’s fantasy novel, “Passage to Avalon,” in April. He made the same decision Muir made shortly thereafter, walking away from his day job in August to concentrate on his books full-time.
“My brain was telling myself, ‘I’m not guaranteeing you success,’” Thayer said of his decision. “But (it was saying), ‘You can take a crack at it if you want.’ … It was just an awesome realization.”
Thayer soaked in everything he could before diving into the industry. He read articles, watched YouTube videos and even befriended writers who were in the throes of publishing, asking them questions and learning from their experiences.
“(Self-publishing) is changing so fast,” Thayer said. “You have to be on the forefront of it.”7 comments on this story
Since making his decision, he’s written two books (the sequel to “Avalon” came out in December, eight months after the first book’s release), recorded the audiobook of his novel himself and toured local schools in Billings, Montana, speaking to over 3,000 kids. He says he isn’t financially stable yet, but he’s encouraged by his experience so far.
Thayer — like many self-published authors — knows it’s all about patience, hard work and a bit of luck. The experience can be brutal, but even just the reward of holding a book with one’s name on the cover can make the jump worthwhile.
“It’s a slow process,” Thayer said. “But it’s cool to have ideas and to have the means to share those ideas. It’s a cool time to be alive in the publishing industry.”